The two women and the beautiful boy behind 'Of Men, Champagne and Victory Aside'
When I first entered the archive room of the newspaper, I thought this would be the start of the long awaited event. All would depend on the findings in this precious room, in these tin filing drawers, colour-graded from a grey green, passing through pure grey, to grey blue.
A woman was sitting behind her retro desk, looking downward, into her lap. Later, I understood that she was performing a task, that of removing the two unusable sides of green beans and then cutting each bean into three pieces. I thought, 'mmm she must be preparing to cook either a Loubieh bi Zeit or a Loubieh bi Lahmeh, a nice stew!'
The woman looked at me through the void between her eyeglasses and her forehead. A flashback to an old Lebanese TV commercial came to mind, 'Abu Fuad; YES 3 in 1'.
I snapped out of it. I started the conversation.
I had been rehearsing how to begin it, so we can take it from there; 'So my friend works here at the newspaper, she showed me the way to this archive room. I am working on an animation project based on archival photographs of people making the victory sign. I will need to collect pictures from several events dating between 1981 and 2008.'
'Like what?' she asked.
'Victorious moments,' I answered.
'Victory? What victory?' she asked.
'Not another defeatist! Do not let her pull you down,' I thought.
I started enumerating the events, having collated a series of milestone incidents that somehow shaped the political scene in Lebanon and the region.
'1982's Israeli invasion of Lebanon, 1987's First Intifada, 1993's Oslo Accords, 1996's Shelling of Qana South Lebanon…'
'Stop!' she said. 'What are you talking about? All these are moments of defeat! Where are you going to find people making the victory sign during such tragedies?'
'I guess some people's disasters are other people's victories, no?' and I continued enumerating gloriously the list that I had prepared; '2000's Liberation of South Lebanon, 2002's Siege of Jenin, 2003's Invasion of Iraq, 2004's Death of Abu Ammar (Yasser Arafat).'
I heard her muttering 'Akh ya Abu Ammar' while I continued, '2005's Beginning of Assassinations in Lebanon, 2010's Beginning of Revolutions in the Arab world…'
I looked in her direction, she had stopped cutting the beans. I thought that she must have finished, but it wasn't that.
She had entered a Marcel Proustian daydream reverie, the famous Madeleine episode in which he was transported through its baking smell to the indoor space, the street, his childhood, his parents and so on… I kept silent so as not to disrupt her trip.
I knew eventually she would wake up, and she did. She immediately started telling me a tale, dating back from the late 70s and early 80s, in West Beirut, when Abu Ammar was occupying one of the empty houses in Hamra. He had been planning the liberation of Palestine, meeting and operating from that very house. When he got a notification that his life might be threatened and that Mossad (Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations) were after him, they had just discovered where he was staying… 'And that day, Abu Ammar knocked on my door, he said, "Dakhilik, I have to stay at your place because the last apartment I was just using was uncovered." So I told him, "Ya ahla wa sahla, come join and be merry, it is my great honor to have you in my house," and this is when he answered, "sure but I do not want you to risk your life for me, you will have to move out, it is simply not safe for you to be in the same house where I am residing…" And so I moved out. I had some family who lived nearby, so I gave him my key and left… Later on, I heard from my neighbors that my house was emptied again, so I returned home to discover that Abu Ammar had left and that was the last time I saw him alive… we used to believe in him, in the Palestinian cause, Akh ya Abu Ammar…' she sighed.
Not knowing what do with this information, except for storing it in my head and trying to register the details clearly, I smiled politely and showed her that it was time to start opening some drawers and proceeded with the research process.
Eventually, I managed to gather around 50 images and put them in front of her. She asked me if I knew how much these cost. I reassured her that it was nothing to worry about and then when she gave me the quotation it was I who started to worry…
So let us redefine the project based on the budget… I told her the news, that I was going to need some time to think about which pictures I would purchase and come back to her.
'They all say the same thing, eventually you will come back to purchase one picture and come up with the excuse that you disappeared because your grandmother died,' she said.
I was happily shocked, I love rude awakening statements, the lack of sophistication as a punch.
I told her that none of this was going to happen, I just had to take some distance to reshuffle the project theoretically, without falling into the trap of the found material dictating the project.
Then the tragedy happened on 18 February 2012. Ziad, a long time friend had left us – he went swimming on a turbulent afternoon in the sea of Raouche and went missing, and then his beautiful body was collected by the fisherman's wife.
We fell apart, we mourned, then we fell into a silence. Meanwhile, I stopped working, my ability to focus on anything that involved the intellect dropped to zero. Month after month, I found myself driven away from my project. Then one day, I pulled myself together and started working again – 'the power of a deadline,' I thought!
I went back to the archive lady after a long period of interruption, asking her to look again at the photographs I had picked in order to proceed with the selection.
She looked at me in disdain, 'what photographs are you talking about? Those were returned to their drawers after you disappeared.'
I started explaining that I had witnessed a huge loss in my life, that a very close friend of mine died. She didn't take me seriously, she simply gave me a gesture with her hand directing me to the drawers, meaning that I can go ahead and start with the research process from scratch.
And I did. I selected 22 images based on whatever was left in my memory.
The most striking ones that remained, the images that made it.